Interview: Costume Designer Keith Nielsen Talks Creating Christmas Magic for Hallmark and Lifetime
Hallmark and Lifetime set themselves apart from other cable channels by being the two biggest sources of made-for-TV holiday films annually. Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas and Lifetime’s It’s a Wonderful Life delight countless viewers by premiering brand-new, beloved holiday films every week between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Throughout his career, costume designer Keith Nielsen has worked on both Hallmark and Lifetime films, bringing the Christmas magic to life with his costume designs. This year, Nielsen’s work could be seen in Hallmark’s A Holiday Spectacular and The 12 Days of Christmas Eve.
For A Holiday Spectacular, Nielsen brought the “fabulous ’50s” to life in a breathtaking manner through his unique mesh of vintage and contemporary pieces. In The 12 Days of Christmas Eve, he tackled a Groundhog Day premise by subtly evolving the protagonist’s costume to signify his gradual change in outlook. In both films, the Christmas spirit shined through in the lush, vibrant, colorful, and holiday-themed costumes he put together. I had the opportunity to speak to Nielsen more about his work on the sets of A Holiday Spectacular and The 12 Days of Christmas Eve. In the course of our interview, he revealed the techniques and historical details he invoked in his costumes, some secret connections between characters’ costumes, and how each costume was intricately tied to the premise and theme of its respective film.
Rachel Ulatowski (TMS): The tones of red, blue, and green were evident in the costumes throughout A Holiday Spectacular, was this color scheme intentional, and, if so, what did it signify?
Keith Nielsen: That’s an interesting question. So, actually, my favorite colors are green and blue, and then red is obviously because it’s a holiday movie. When you start a project, especially a period project, you start with an empty room and you have to fill the room with clothing. We started just sourcing stock—it’s basically a good foundation of things you can pull from for background or in an emergency situation. When I was pulling from rental houses those were naturally the colors that I was just drawn to. There were certain things—like I had gotten a dress from a vendor in Massachusetts and it’s the green dress that Elisabeth (Carolyn McCormick) wears when they’re doing wedding invitations but then I wanted to create a visual connection between her and her husband, so he wears a green sweater. Red is always consistent in some way, shape, form, or tone because it is a holiday movie. So Maggie’s coat she wears when she arrives in New York, I was like, “Well it needs to be red.” Also, it was a great contrast to the neutrals of the city backdrop. It wasn’t necessarily intentional, it was just things that I’m drawn to, especially when it comes to blues. With men’s suiting, I typically favor blues and navys over blacks just because of the way it photographs on camera. Black sucks up so much light but navys and darker blues give the same kind of effect but it’s a little more richer. It’s just my natural style choice and preference when it comes to color.
TMS: The real-life Rockettes have debuted over 90+ years of dances and costumes throughout the decades. Which particular Radio City Rockettes costumes inspired the looks of the 1958 Rockettes in A Holiday Spectacular?
Nielsen: I got a lot of archival information from Madison Square Garden, which owns The Rockettes. As far as the performance Rockettes’ clothes, I didn’t design those. Those are from the real shows, so we chose things that were really timeless and could work for 1958 with how it was styled and filmed. The ones that I did design were the ones like The Rockettes wore in the rehearsal room, who were real Rockettes we still dressed. I looked at what they wore offstage in rehearsal.
Back in the day, like in our film, it was a boarding house situation—so I was looking at what they wore when they were hanging out or what they wore in rehearsal, and they rehearsed six hours a day six days a week so these were big parts of their life and it all comes down to functionality mixed with the period. One of the fun things in our research, there are a lot of images of them in costume fittings and getting measured because the height is such a specific thing. Looking at things like the seamstresses, like what were they wearing, what did their aprons look like, what was the tone of that? Because we have some background seamstresses when they do their costume fitting. Even though we’re using today’s outfit of the Rockettes’ performance outfit, it’s things like what we’re putting it next to that can help sell it as the 1950s.
The materials that were used were a big thing as far as the choice goes. Also, like you just talked about “90 years”—that history was so inspiring because there’s so much history with the space and that group of women. And you can feel that when you meet and work with them because, both on and offstage, they’re just such a family and that’s so inspiring. That was a big thing in our story—that sisterhood. So, I wanted to bring that warmth and sisterhood to the screen. And with that, the space of Radio City and all of the Rockefeller Plaza was so inspiring. I mean, it’s fabulous now, but what was it like in the 50s mixed with fabulous full skirts, beautiful hats, and beautiful coats? So it was a mixture of all the different things of the history of onstage and off stage mixed with the space.
TMS: What techniques did you utilize to capture the nostalgic 1950s vintage look of the costumes in A Holiday Spectacular?
Nielsen: So a lot of it’s the real deal, a lot of it’s straight from the 50s because I don’t think you can get any better than the real deal when it comes down to the character and the feeling of it. When I sourced things like Maggie’s (Ginna Claire Mason) blue skirt with the poinsettias on it when she’s decorating the Christmas tree, I didn’t even know who was going to wear it when I got it, but I was like, “I have to have this piece because there’s something so special about it.” It’s like, “if these walls could talk,” but instead, it’s “if these clothes could talk.”
And there’s so much character when you get into it. That skirt, if you flip it upside down, you can see all the hand stitchwork of tacking each of the petals and there’s just so much character in that. Even if we made it today, I just don’t feel like you can recreate it. And that’s really important to bring the magic of the 50s because I really think the 50s is a magical time. I think when people think retro, they’re like, “Oh, the fabulous 50s.” And it was, it was so many pieces, and playing with all of those pieces really gave us the whole picture.
When I say pieces, I mean the shoes, the stockings, the underpinnings of the undergarments, all of the accessories, the gloves, the scarves, the hats—that really create the picture. It really creates that fabulous fantasy and also really helps keep an accurate portrayal of the 50s and also anything really period. Because back in those days, people dressed, for everything! And I loved that because I was like, “Yeah, of course, she’s [Maggie] just going down the street, and of course, she looks fabulous.” That’s what people did—they dressed because you never knew where you would end up. Also, it was great because this is show business and it’s Hollywood, and it’s really aesthetically pleasing to look at, as well.
Mixed with that, I sourced real vintage that I purchased and rented, and I also mixed in some new pieces just because the ’50s is almost 70 years ago. So to keep it fresh, I did mix in some slightly modern things that I could modify to keep it vibrant. For example, the finale dress that Maggie wears, the ivory one, that’s a 2019 dress that we reconstructed to look like the 1950s, but then we mixed it with an original Dior headpiece. There was also a really cute thing, a detail that nobody will know unless I tell you, but Maggie and her mom Elisabeth’s headpieces were both Dior, which is just cute because it’s a mom-daughter thing, but it’s nothing that you would know just by looking at the screen.
TMS: A Holiday Spectacular pits the wardrobe of the Philadelphia, PA, upper class with working-class outfits of New York City residents. How did you and your team capture the discrepancies in fashion between different classes in A Holiday Spectacular?
Nielsen: I loved that contrast from when I first read the script just because my mind automatically was thinking about trends. Even today, trends hit cities first, right? Especially back in a time when communication flow wasn’t as fast and instant as it is today, it hit New York City or Boston first.
She [Maggie] was on the outskirts of Philadelphia and was from a very old-school, old-money family. So in New York, I wanted it to be a little bit more current for 1958. So you’ll see a big variation in silhouettes there. You’ll see pencil skirts, you’ll see full skirts, you’ll see fuller coats, you’ll see the straighter coats because we’re kind of inching towards the ’60s. You’ll see lots of pants because, as you saw, pants were such a thing in the script and the story. What you’re seeing in Philadelphia, it’s much more classic. It’s much more basic ’50s, which is the fuller skirts, the bone bodices, a tight waist, and really good tailoring.
Even Elizabeth has one detail with her. She always wore a seamed stocking, which was more 1940s, whereas everybody else wore a seamless stocking because those were introduced in 1954, so technically everybody should have been wearing seamless. But I elected for her a seamed stocking because she has old-school values.
Also, when Maggie is in Philadelphia, she’s much more innocent, so she’s dressed in more girly, feminine dresses that are youthful and fun, playful dresses. They’re not necessarily aspiring to be anything; they’re just really pretty. But she’s not just the pretty girl. She has these aspirations to go to the city and explore, and we see that through her costume journey because we see her in all these different silhouettes throughout the film, which really ties in with her finale dress because I wanted to end her in a gown because it’s on that stage and it needs to make sense, but I intentionally wanted it to be strapless because it was a little bit more free compared to when we meet her in sleeves.
TMS: In The 12 Days of Christmas Eve, the same day plays on repeat for over a week, yet Brian’s (Kelsey Grammer) costumes change. We go from a sweater vest and suit to multi-colored PJs to a Santa Clause outfit. Why did his costumes change without the time necessarily changing?
Nielsen: So it’s Brian’s story. We’re following Brian. Brian is the one that meets Santa and is faced with the reality of the choices he’s made in his life. So as the days repeat, he’s the one that’s trying all these new things to reconnect with his daughter and his granddaughter. So we’re following his journey, so he’s going to change because he’s the only one reliving these days and knows that he’s reliving these days. Nobody else knows that.
So he’s changing and trying all these new things through different experiences with his granddaughter. When they go Christmas shopping, they’re in crazy Christmas outfits, but he’s not fully free at that point. He’s still a little bit controlled and still hasn’t figured out what Santa’s doing yet. So he’s specifically in a suit, but it’s a mismatched plaid suit. So it shows evolution because the fabric choice is different and evolutionary for him, but the cut is still a suit in classic, which is what we meet him in.
So, we changed him because it’s his story and we’re following him and everybody else stays the same to show that contrast and make his journey evident. It’s really evident by the end because he’s Santa doing a conga line and we finish with the family in Christmas pajamas, which was a fun bookend, too, because we meet him in pajamas and then we say goodbye to him in pajamas. The pajamas are a traditional classic, like Men’s Brooks Brothers, just pants and a button-up, but it’s in two different fabrics. So I did the same thing with the suit as I did with the pajamas.
TMS: In The 12 Days of Christmas Eve, Spencer Grammar’s Michelle wears a sleek red jumpsuit to her father’s fundraiser. Can you tell us a little bit more about why you chose that specific style for Michelle?
Nielsen: A lot of the time, we don’t necessarily film in the place we’re set in, so we actually filmed this on the coastline in Connecticut, but we were set in New York. So I definitely wanted to create something that read a bit like New York. Also, she doesn’t necessarily get to go out a lot. She’s a surgeon. She’s a working mom. I wanted her to look great in something, but I didn’t necessarily want a traditional dress, just because this script was so different compared to other holiday movies that I’ve seen and done.
Also, our director, Dustin Richard, wanted it to just veer away from the expected a little bit. So I was like, let’s do a jumpsuit. Like, it’s a little bit more practical. She’s a mom, she’s a surgeon. She just like, threw this on because it’s easy, but it’s also chic, and I really liked the clean lines of that specific jumpsuit. I also like that it is actually fuchsia, it’s not red. And I liked that because it picked up the tones really well and it was really rich, but it wasn’t the stereotypical red or green or whatever, like gold, but it still read Holiday.
TMS: What were your favorite costumes to design in The 12 Days of Christmas Eve and A Holiday Spectacular?
Nielsen: Twelve Days, I definitely loved the elf costumes. Specifically, I really liked Spencer’s a lot because I was going for this unison of Victorian era meets the stereotypical illustration of an elf. I didn’t want it to look hokey, I wanted it to look intentional, but I also wanted to have some kind of handmade element because the thought process was that this was her idea, to be like, “Dad, come on, let’s do this.” So it’s kind of thrown together, but also it’s a little bit more intentional.
We actually took existing things and really kind of reworked them and put them together in an interesting way. And everybody was really down for that. I thought it was really fun just because sometimes you never know what you’re going to get. And I appreciate that. My cast, they were so down to play and be elves, and that’s really cool, especially when you have a young actress with you. It’s cool that everybody can have a really great time and just feel the vibrancy of the film and the season.
Spectacular, I mean, I really love anything Ginna Claire wore. She’s such a dream. I adore that woman, and I’m so grateful that she was my leading lady. But the one that takes the cake for me, I think, will always be her finale gown, because I bought that before I had cast, and it was a pretty chunk of change, but I was like, “I think it’s perfect.” And because I bought that before I even knew anything, it actually decided a lot of things tonally for me, because if you look at the really consistent thing in Holiday Spectacular it’s the color of ivory, because you meet Grandma Margaret in ivory, when Maggie breaks up with her fiancé she’s in ivory, and then she finishes in ivory with the actual love of her life.
But they’re all three different silhouettes because one’s contemporary in her period. So you figure those are your tent poles. You have your beginning, your middle, and your end. And that was really justified by that final gown. Also, I love anything that my team and I can put our own spin on. So, it was a full gown with a train that we brought up to tea length. We added some layers. There are four petticoats under there mixed with the built-in petticoats. Then we and Ginna Claire were down to really go for it with actual 50s underpinnings and then we redid the neckline and added her tool swoop, which really highlights the toy soldier pin that John gives her at the end. So, yeah, I love my finale dress. It’s my favorite thing. It just makes my little heart sing.
TMS: What has been your favorite film to costume design on overall in the course of your career?
Nielsen: Holiday-wise, I’m in love with my first Hallmark movie, Next Stop, Christmas. Just because I remember getting that script, and I was just beaming because it’s literally a Back to the Future reunion with Christopher Lloyd and Lea Thompson. And we filmed on a real steam train—so cool. And, I mean, who doesn’t want Christopher Lloyd to be your magical conductor? And that was, again, another thing that we got to make.
And in film, it’s so rare that you get to make things just because building takes time and it takes money. And a lot of these turnarounds are really tight. Like, for example, I got hired on Spectacular on December 8th of last year, and we rolled cameras on January 9. But my whole point is, it was a month of time, but you had the holiday mixed in there, so you had a lot of other factors factor into that. So I love Next Stop, Christmas. We also built some stuff for Sugar Plum Twist. But, yeah, I mean, Next Stop was kind of the first Hallmark film that I adored.
(featured image: Hallmark, Elan Photography, Lifetime)
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